What If Mark Zuckerberg Had Stayed in School?
Two more years at Harvard would have taught him some valuable lessons — and changed the course of Facebook

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in Medium on 21 March 2019

This month, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has announced yet another new direction for his famously bad-acting company. Now, he says, the platform once responsible for the Cambridge Analytica election fiasco and countless other personal invasions will become the poster child for privacy and encryption. Maybe after all the evasions, missteps, and pivots, Zuckerberg is finally learning from his experiences.

But as I watch Mark Zuckerberg zig and zag his way through one disaster after another, I can’t help but muse on one of the ways he could have spared himself — and the rest of humanity — all this trouble. What if he had simply stayed in school?

At the end of his sophomore year, Mark Zuckerberg dropped out of Harvard’s class of 2006 in order to pursue development of Facebook. The social networking platform was already the 10th most trafficked site on the internet, so young Zuck decided to follow in the footsteps of Harvard dropout Bill Gates and pursue Silicon Valley venture capitalists over Cambridge academics.

After all, at least by the logic of lean startups, Harvard had already served its purpose. Young Zuck had gained enough programming chops in computer science to build his minimum viable product, and — perhaps more important — he had leveraged the elite student population of Harvard to find the partners and ideas he needed to get a company up and running.

But by forgoing a college education, Zuckerberg may have denied himself — and the world — the benefit of some historical, cultural, economic, and political context for his work. And we are all now paying the price for his impatience. What if Mark Zuckerberg had decided to stay in school instead? Looking back through Harvard’s course catalogs for 2005 and 2006, one finds a bounty of offerings, from sociology and psychology to philosophy and literature, that would have challenged the assumptions underlying Silicon Valley dogma and might just have given Zuckerberg the insight he needed to build a platform that promoted human cognition and connection, and even democracy itself, instead of undermining them.

For example, over his four semesters as an upperclassman, Zuckerberg could have availed himself of Harvard professors, including Greg Manciw, former chairman of the President’s Council of Economic Advisers. If Zuck had taken Manciw’s “Principles of Economics” class, he may have recognized that there is a growth-based economic operating system running beneath every Silicon Valley unicorn — one that ultimately demands turning users into products or, worse, data fodder for the algorithms. He may have realized that taking the most investment at the highest valuation would only put his company at the mercy of its shareholders and obligate him to grow by any means necessary.

Or what if he had chosen to study with superstar literary critic Helen Vendler, whose undergraduate course “Literature and the Arts” offered “a study of poetry as the history and science of feeling”? Might Zuckerberg have later been able to predict his platform’s bias for emotional insensitivity, or could he have curtailed the use of language as cognitive weapon?

Maybe that inquiry would have been even better informed by taking Steven Pinker’s course that spring, “The Human Mind,” which covered psychoanalysis, behavioralism, cognitive neuroscience, and evolutionary psychology. Imagine if Zuckerberg had considered human consciousness in an academic or ethical context before setting upon entraining the collective psyche through his news feed algorithms?

He could have also learned about demographic change and social stratification — the very impulse for nationalism — by attending Niall Ferguson’s history course. He could have taken “The Harlem Renaissance” with Henry Louis Gates Jr. and learned how a neighborhood of real people interacting in real space differs from an online, data-determined affinity group. Or what if he had chosen to study under Pulitzer Prize–winning historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, whose courses meant to “show the interconnections between public events and private experience”? Maybe learning about the delicate interplay between people’s interior and public worlds would have led Zuckerberg to think twice about offering up his users’ brain stems to the highest political bidder.

Yes, Zuckerberg has apologized profusely after the fact for helping to drive American democracy off a cliff. “We didn’t take a broad-enough view of our responsibility, and that was a big mistake,” he told Congress. But what if he had chosen to study the elements of working democracy before reengineering it on all of our behalf? Facebook wants for some good lessons in history, economics, sociology, psychology, governance, and ethics.

When Mark chose to drop out of school, he was barely 20 years old. His own brain wasn’t even completely formed yet. The myelin sheaths hadn’t fully developed around the cells of his neocortex, offering the sort of impulse control and executive functioning required to make decisions of this magnitude. Instead of continuing to develop his mind with educators profoundly dedicated to that purpose, he transferred parental authority onto the likes of Napster founder Sean Parker and big-data billionaire Peter “Palantir” Thiel. With mentors like these, it’s no wonder Zuck turned Facebook into the poster child for a surveillance economy.

As if to create more such intellectually and emotionally challenged founders, Thiel is paying more future Zuckerbergs to drop out of school, with a fellowship that “gives $100,000 to young people who want to build new things instead of sitting in a classroom.” Why learn if you can build?

Yet this only makes sense when we think of education in its most utilitarian context — as if the point of school is to become a more productive worker, get a good job, or offer a startup to a billionaire. Since when do we understand school as training for work? If anything, as I’ve explained before, it was meant as compensation for a life of work. Even the coal miner, it was thought, should enjoy the dignity of being able to return home after a day in the mines and appreciate a good novel or be able to vote intelligently.

Today, however, concerned principals and college presidents regularly meet with corporate CEOs to find out what sorts of skills they’ll need from the worker of tomorrow. JavaScript or Python? Excel or blockchain? School becomes, at best, a way for corporations to externalize the cost of job training to the public sector and, at worst, a form of social control.

Zuckerberg got the message: Program or be programmed. And he went right along with it, understanding his human users purely in terms of our utility value. We are not human beings with essential dignity, but data to be mined, inventory to be tagged, and nervous systems to be triggered.

Real education subverts this dynamic. School is a means of promoting not social control, or even productivity, but the higher value of learning itself. School is less valuable for the information or skills transmitted than the mimesis — the live mirroring and modeling — through which students learn to think critically, develop rapport, and establish solidarity. School is not directed at our utilitarian value, but our essential, intrinsic dignity. How profoundly sad it is that many of us think of a Harvard education more as a professional credential than a pinnacle of humanism. If Mark Zuckerberg had valued his own human development over his compatibility with Silicon Valley and its investors, he may not have stumbled so easily into the ethical nightmare that is Facebook today.

Admittedly, had Zuckerberg finished out his college career, Facebook may have come out two whole years later. But, oh, what a difference those two years might have made.